What this watercolor lacks in accuracy, it makes up for with dramatic action. While a lone British seaman nails a shredded British ensign to the stump of HMS Guerriere’s fallen mizzenmast, USS Constitution‘s three American ensigns wave proudly above the chaos. The War of 1812 battle between Constitution and Guerriere was likely an appealing subject matter for the artist, Ambroise Louis Garneray, a French sailor who was held captive in British prisons from 1806 to 1814. This work was done after his release.
Garneray specialized in painting naval battles, and he did so with the vigor of one who participated in his fair share of them. The son of Marguerite Courgit and Jean-Francois Garneray, who had been a painter and pupil of Jacques-Louis David, the young Ambroise undoubtedly drew inspiration from his father and his associates. Despite this pedigree, Garneray joined the French Navy at the age of 13 and sailed for the Indian Ocean. In 1800, he enlisted with the famed privateer Robert Surcouf and fought in a number of notable actions. In 1806, while serving on board the frigate Belle Poule, he was captured by the British and interred on the prison hulks off Portsmouth, England. After his released in 1814, Garneray, inspired by his own adventures and misfortunes, began painting full time.